Changing the narrative around physical activity: an interview with Fiyory Ghezae


Health is one of those things we can take for granted until our bodies force us to pay attention. Whether it’s burnout, a breakdown, or serious illness, sometimes we only realise the importance of self care when it’s too late.

As we find ourselves nearly three months into 2022, many of us will have set goals to take better care of ourselves by keeping physically active. I spoke with my fellow Emerging Minds Network advisor Fiyory Ghezae, who is a PhD student and Mental Health Personal Trainer, and her words might give us all the refreshing accountability we need!

What does it mean to you to be a mental health personal trainer?

Fiyory: A mental health personal trainer is somebody who focuses on the use of physical activity as a means to help those who are dealing with poor mental health. It’s equally about ensuring that people are physically active, so that they have protective measures against poor mental health.  

What inspired you to get into this field and make that connection?

Fiyory: I did my undergraduate degree in Sports Science, and qualifying as a personal trainer was offered to me as part of my course. So, I did the course and became qualified. Then I did a Masters in Mental Health, and I found that while I loved being a personal trainer, my heart was not in it for merely helping people lose weight. 

I’m really passionate about helping people use physical activity to cope with mental health because it’s something I’ve used to cope with my mental health. I’ve noticed that I feel a lot better the more active I am, and the body that you want comes along with that. I’m not saying you can’t have goals for the body you want, but I am primarily physically active for the sake of my mental health and just to feel good.

Some people living with chronic illnesses find it difficult to keep physically active. What encouragement do you have for them?

Fiyory: Keeping active can be as simple as walking. When I say ‘keep physically active’, I don’t mean two hours in the gym. I literally mean ‘just move your body’ whether that’s hoovering, walking up and down your stairs, walking outside. Any form of physical activity that suits you. It’s just about getting your body moving, and not seeing it as another task. It’s about seeing it as you taking care of yourself. 

If all you can do is a five minute walk, then do that. A five minute walk is better than nothing. If all you can do is yoga on a chair, then that’s better than nothing. 

Social media has made it seem as if in order to be active, you have to be one of those fitness people who are running 24/7 and in the gym 24/7. That’s not true. Being physically active is just about moving your body in whatever way suits you. 

What are your thoughts on the state of physical activity in the Black community?

Fiyory: I don’t think we’re physically active enough, to be honest. I’m starting to see a change now in terms of rollerblading and yoga, and things like that. I’m seeing more Black people in that space. But it feels like everyone who’s an influencer in fitness has a six-pack and really fit physiques, and not so much people who are just physically active. And I think, culturally, when we were growing up many of our parents or grandparents never really cared for physical activity. 

This can be seen in education, where many parents never really cared whether their child took part in PE. The focus was, and still is, on just the core subjects. The importance of being active itself doesn’t seem to be understood.

Would you say there’s a lack of representation in fitness?

Fiyory: In general, I think there’s a lack of representation in fitness within the Black community, and when you do have some representation, most of them are personal trainers whose job is to be physically active all the time, or they are former athletes–which is phenomenal, but I think the idea of physical activity has gotten lost in the world of fitness. Fitness is one thing, but being physically active is just moving your body.

I think when people hear ‘physically active’, they automatically think 20 minutes of a really intense workout or going to the gym. I think everyone is forgetting the walking and the yoga at home, and the other simple things you can do.

What are the costs of not being physically active?

Fiyory: The cost is endless. Physical health-wise, there is a risk of many diseases if you’re not moving your body. Our bodies are not designed to sit down, we’re designed to move. If you’re not moving your body, you’re putting yourself at risk. You’re not using your heart, lungs or muscles properly. You’re not using the parts of your body that you’re meant to be using. 

Mental health-wise, physical activity is great for your mental health. It’s great for your self-esteem and confidence. Everything is intertwined. Some people who are not physically active may also be overweight or self-conscious about their body, but physical activity is a good way to help with both your physical and mental health.

Many of us live busy lives with demanding schedules. How can we fit physical activity into that?

Fiyory: You can fit it in. We can fit a 30-minute (or less) walk into our day, just like we do half an hour of watching TV. You can be on the phone and walk or do something else, and still get your steps in. 

I understand going to the gym and other things may be difficult to do for various reasons, and that’s fine, but most of us can definitely fit in a walk.

What are some ways people can overcome any cognitive barriers to physical activity?

Fiyory: Start off small. If you want to go to the gym, don’t expect to go five times a week straight away. If you don’t enjoy walking, consider asking a friend to go with you. Maybe walk around your house while watching something on your phone. 

Being physically active is not a punishment, it’s you taking care of your body. The same way you brush your teeth, eat, sleep and do all these things, physical activity is a form of self care. Once people start seeing it as a form of self care, it’ll be a lot easier to get into the habit of walking for 10 minutes, going to the gym or classes, or going out with friends. 

When you’re coming home from the shops, get off one bus stop earlier and walk. It’s such a small step, but it’ll make such a big difference. When you’re at the train station, if there’s stairs and you have time, take the stairs down. I know walking up is a lot, but take the stairs walking down. It’s a small thing, but you’re still moving your body. I think people forget these are small things you can do. 

How does physical activity contribute to flourishing at university/work?

Fiyory: Physical activity is good for your cognitive functioning and for your mental health in general. When you’re in a good mental health state, work and academics tend to be a lot better. When you’re working out and physically feeling better, you’re more confident and comfortable with yourself, and it starts your day off really well. 

Personally, I like to start my day off with the gym because it’s ‘me time’, and I like getting it out of the way and starting my day feeling fresh. Those of us who sit down for hours at desks, we have aches and pains, but when you’re physically active, you’re helping yourself in so many ways, and your mood is just better.

Being physically active is also sometimes a great way to make friends. It’s a nice thing to connect with people over. You can go on walks with your colleagues, for example. If you’re in a better mood, you tend to be a better vibe. If you’re happy, you give off happy energy to others. So, if you start your day being physically active, and you come into the office in a really good mood, you’re more likely to be kind to others than if you come in and you’re extremely tired and can’t be bothered to do anything. 

What do you have to say to those whose bodies are exhausted because of trauma or conditions like anaemia?

Fiyory: Focus on low intensity. It’s the small things – the five minute walk as and when you can fit it in. If you struggle with tiredness and you know an hour’s walk will exhaust you, break the hour into 10 minute walks when you can. Just move your body in any way. If you’re extremely tired, you may be not be able to lift weights, but you can do a five minute walk every few hours. So, focus on the low impact stuff. 

Find something that works for you. It could be yoga, it could be walking or so many other activities you can do. It’s just about finding the activity that works well for you, and figuring out whether it’s the small, slow bursts that will work better for you, or the intense workouts. You can definitely be physically active regardless of your condition, just find the activity that suits your needs. 

Any last thoughts?

Fiyory: As Black women, we tend to put everyone else above ourselves. If a family member or friend needs something, we’ll get it done. We’re always putting somebody else’s needs above our own. We’re always striving for the next thing to improve ourselves, like getting another degree or setting up a business or whatever. But it’s so important that we take care of ourselves! 

Being physically active is one of those important things, and trying to eat nutritious food is a form of self care. It’s really important to take time out of your day to schedule it, the same way we schedule everything else in our diary, we need to schedule physical activity. That 20 minute walk, three times a week, or the 10 minute walk. Whatever your choice of activity, we need to take it seriously because we have quite a few health risks, physically and mentally. So, it’s important that we do the things we can to take care of ourselves. 

This has nothing to do with weight. When I talk about physical activity, it’s just about moving your body. It doesn’t matter your size, as long as you’re healthy. 

Move your body on a daily basis in whatever way you can as a form of self care for your physical and mental health because you deserve it. 

If you’re a primary school teacher or teaching assistant who delivers or supports PE lessons for children aged 4-11 years in England, keep reading!

As part of her PhD, Fiyory is interested in understanding how you feel about physical activity, young children’s physical activity level, and the delivery of PE in primary school. 

She has created a questionnaire or you to complete. If you are interested in taking part, please click here, or scan the relevant QR code on the advert to complete the questionnaire. When you complete the survey, you can enter the prize draw to win a £50 voucher.

Fiyory will also be carrying out the second stage of her study in schools, so if you are interested in having her take over some PE sessions then please email her at:

“As Black women, we’re always striving for the next thing to improve ourselves, but it’s so important that we take care of ourselves!”  – Check out @Fiyory_’s thoughts on rethinking physical activity in her interview with @iBounceBlack:

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